What is tofu?
Tofu is the queen of versatility of all soy products. It’s also known as bean curd or dofu (Chinese) and is a great replacement for meat entrees. It is made from the strained natural soy milk produced when cracked soybeans are cooked. A solidifier (like calcium sulfate) is added and then the soy milk is pressed into curds, forming a creamy white cheese.
Traditionally, tofu was added to soup broths or simply steamed and served with a soy sauce dip. However, it is infinitely versatile in dishes from spreads, sauces, gravies, salad dressings, puddings, or desserts. Broiled, barbecued, deep-fried, or skewered are some of the many ways to prepare this versatile protein. Use it to extend your meat loaf, egg or tuna salad, scramble tofu for breakfast, or have a tofu salad. It can be made into your favorite cheese substitute, ricotta, or cream cheese.
Tofu is like a sponge, it will soak up the flavors of any food or sauce in which it is cooked.
Organic tofu is a relatively pure source of protein, being free of pesticides, additives, and growth hormones (unlike much of the animal protein we rely too heavily on). An 8 oz serving has the same amount of protein as a 5 oz hamburger, but no cholesterol. The fat in tofu is unsaturated and tofu contains about 85% water. Tofu is a good source of calcium if calcium sulfate is added (not all tofu contains this). Tofu contains a fair amount of iron, phosphorus, and B complex vitamins.
Over 90% of soybean crops are grown from seeds that are GE (genetically engineered) or GMOs (genetically modified organism). Always buy tofu made from organic soy milk and it will be free of GMOs and not GE. The label will say GMO free or organic soybeans will be in the ingredient list.
Packaged tofu will always have an expiration date. Once the package is opened, keep remaining tofu in fresh water and change every few days. Opened tofu, even if kept in water in the refrigerator, will deteriorate quickly and even faster if water is not changed. Refrigerated tofu will last up to a week.
Fresh or deep fried tofu can be frozen for up to 3 months. Freezing fresh tofu will drastically change the consistency. It loses most of its water weight and becomes spongy when defrosted. Recipes containing sauce and flavorful juice work well with defrosted tofu because flavors are absorbed better than regular tofu, while remaining chewy. See my Sunrise Curried Tomato Stew recipe in this chapter.
My recipes in this chapter use a variety of tofu styles and preparations. The recipes are an international collection of flavors and textures. Tofu Parmesan, anyone?
Bites of Insight:
Henry Ford was a great leader of the soybean industry and spent $1,250,000 on soybean research. By 1935 every Ford car had soy involved in its manufacture: soy oil in the paint, soy oil in the fluid for shock absorbers, and auto body panels made of soy-based plastics. Ford’s interest led to two bushels of soybeans being used in each Ford car.
Additionally, he paved the way for the development of soy milk, soy ice cream, and soy whipped topping. He funded research to develop artificial silk from soy fibers and even sported a suit made entirely from soybeans.
Varieties of Tofu
There are several varieties of tofu, and it is important to choose the correct one for your recipe.
- Silken Tofu ― Excellent for salad dressings, puddings, gravies, or as a creamy soup stock substitute.
- Soft Tofu ― The base ingredient for scrumptious quiches, cheesecakes, or puddings. Also the best tofu for adding to miso soup. Do not cook on high heat as it will disintegrate.
- Firm Tofu ― Wonderful, firmer texture for Chinese stir-fry and eggless omelets.
- Extra Firm Tofu ― good for pan frying or baking; it makes a great sandwich stuffer for nutritious lunches.
In spite of the nutrition in tofu, there is considerable controversy over soybeans and their by-products. More than half of our supermarket foods contain some form of soy by-product (soy isolate, tvp, soy lecithin, soy oil). Additionally, soy-based dairy and meat substitutes abound in every market. I do not recommend consuming many of these “fake” foods as I call them. Soy hot dogs, bologna, soymilk, cheese, bacon, and “meat” substitute foods are made from highly processed soy by-products. Only fermented soy products such as tempeh, miso, and soy sauce that are made from organically grown soybeans are recommended.
Soy contains an anti-nutrient called phytic acid, which blocks the body’s uptake of essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and especially zinc. Soybeans also contain enzyme inhibitors. These inhibitors block uptake of trypsin and other enzymes that the body needs for protein digestion. Another harmful substance in soybeans is hemagglutinin, a clot promoting substance that causes red blood cells to clump together which impedes oxygen distribution to the body’s tissues. Fermenting soy, however, minimizes this effect.
During the Chou Dynasty in 1100 BC, soybeans were considered unfit to eat. They were grown solely as a method of fixing nitrogen in crop rotation. It was discovered that fermenting the soybean is one of two ways to successfully remove or neutralize the anti-nutrients or natural toxins.
Fermented soy such as miso, soy sauce, tempeh, and sprouted soybeans are just some of the successful ways to remove or neutralize the anti-nutrients (natural toxins) in soybeans. Soaking soybeans removes the inhibitors, and sprouting activates the “life force” of the seed, increasing the healthy benefits of soy. The sprout is the maximum growth phase of the plant, with the highest concentration of bio-available nutrients in the plant’s life. In addition, a low temperature drying process of the sprouts preserves the integrity of the beneficial proteins, enzymes, lipids, vitamins, minerals, and phyto-nutrient matrix.
A study was done to examine the diets and iron levels of vegetarian and non-vegetarians. Many vegetarians replace their red meat with soy proteins. Although the blood iron levels were the same in both groups, the storage of iron as serum ferritin concentration was 50% lower in vegetarian women. The prevalence of anemia and iron deficiency was 30-50% in these vegetarian women which was twice as great as in non-vegetarian women. This research, although not conclusive, suggests that vegetarians who rely on soy products for much of their protein may not be absorbing iron as well in their diet.
Some foods can help your body absorb iron from iron-rich foods; others can hinder it. To absorb the most iron from the foods you eat, avoid drinking coffee or tea or consuming calcium-rich foods or drinks with iron-rich meals. To improve your absorption of non-heme iron, eat it along with a good source of Vitamin C–such as orange juice, broccoli, or strawberries–or a food from the meat, fish, and poultry group..
The American way of “if something is good, then more must be better,” is not always true, especially in this case. I recommend a moderate consumption of fermented organic soy proteins to be enjoyed 1-2 times a week. The practice of consuming daily servings of soy milk, soy-based protein cereals, and soy protein bars is over consumption.
What is tempeh?
You will see several recipes using tempeh. It is a fermented soybean cake originating in Indonesia that holds together when sliced and diced. The whole soybean is used instead of just the “milk” from the soybean (tofu). It is a complete protein and rich in phyto-nutrients. It is fermented, easy to digest, and does not contain phytates, present in soybeans, which can block the uptake of minerals in our system. Delicious as an entrée or an addition to soups, it does not have the wide versatility of tofu.